Sew What?!


When I was growing up, Mom and her mother, Grandmother McLaughlin, often made clothes for me. I was a size 3 back then, before clothes that small were in abundance, so finding off-the-rack clothes that fit was a torturous exercise that often involved mother-daughter arguing. Mom didn't enjoy sewing, but it was the lesser of two evils. I had fun picking out patterns and material for all my one-of-a-kind creations. The chemicals in the fabrics made my eyes water and burn within five minutes of entering Hancock Fabrics; formaldehyde was used in wrinkle-resistant fabrics, and that was the heyday of perma press. But eye irritation was a small price to pay for a fashionista.

One of my favorite Mom creations was a purple cotton/polyester dress with white geometric shapes on it, squares within squares within squares; it made me dizzy when I looked at it. It was perfect. I wore white go-go boots and a silver chain belt with it, imagining myself as Judy Carr or Goldie Hawn dancing in a cage on Laugh-In.

In 1976, at age 13, I thought I’d try to carry on the tradition. If sewing were a dominant trait in the gene pool, I, too, would be a good seamstress. Mom took me to Hancock Fabrics where I picked out a pattern for a summer top; I chose it for its groovy sleeves. The material had a white background with little royal-blue flowers that resembled tulips. I pinned the pattern to the fabric, cut out the pieces, and was on my way to being the fashion talk of the town.

Unfortunately, Mom and I are the only two people in town who ever saw the Ill-Fated Blouse. The sleeves weren’t groovy, they were funky, but not in a good way. Of course, it was the 70s, so a lot about clothes then was funky. These weren’t your run-of-the-mill sleeves. No, these sleeves were horrendous - squares that were to hang down and look like sleeves.

“I can’t do this! I hate these sleeves! Every time I get them lined up right, ready to stitch, they slip.”

“I think you picked a hard pattern to start with,” Mom explained, making me feel better about my failure. The unfinished albatross resided in Mom's middle dresser drawer for 20 years, just in case I decided to finish it 40 years later and 40 pounds heavier. I was appalled when I learned, last year, that she threw it out after 39 years. Heartless. I could’ve been a contender in Guinness for “longest amount of time a sewing project has gone unfinished.”

Since no Sewing for Complete Idiots manual existed, I never again tried making a piece of clothing. In fact, I did very little involving thread of any kind, and resorted to liquid embroidery as a hobby. I could handle squeezing paint from a tube onto an already sketched picture. The possibility of failure dropped dramatically when I removed a needle from the scenario.

That summer, Mom and I were planning a trip to Michigan so I could see my birthplace. I wanted us to have matching dresses to wear on our flight, a fact that was quite remarkable since 13-year-old girls historically never acknowledge they have anything remotely in common with their mothers, who know nothing. Often, these girls pretend they were birthed by aliens rather than admit they have mothers.

I decided we needed fabric that screamed, “Hey, world, we are foxy women on an adventure!”

As I rounded a corner, there it was. A fashion statement so loud it would wake the dead.

“Mom, look! Let’s get this one!”

The material had a black background and was covered with huge hot-pink flowers. It was gorgeous and bold.

Mom, lacking my sense of style, promptly and bluntly vetoed my first choice. “Oh, Kim, no! Ugh. I am not wearing that. Let’s keep looking.” Poor, misguided soul. We could have caught the eye of a world-renowned designer flying from Houston to Michigan to Paris, but the woman who had no appreciation for “flower power” blew it.

My second choice was approved. It was dark blue and light blue with squares that looked like patchwork. As in a quilt. Not exactly conservative, but it didn’t startle admirers as we boarded the plane. I was confident we were turning heads; we were knockouts. Not long ago, I found my dress in a bag of my childhood treasures at Mom’s house. It wasn’t as beautiful as I had remembered, but it would make a great wall hanging. 

When we returned from our trip, the United States celebrated her 200th birthday, as we watched Walter Cronkite narrate festivities in Washington D. C. We had '76 bumper stickers, t-shirts, lapel pins, pencils, you name it. It was, literally, the birthday party of the century. So, in October, Grandmother made bicentennial overalls for me to wear trick-or-treating. They were red, white, and blue with '76 flags. To complement the ensemble, Mom made an Uncle Sam top hat and cane. I got rave reviews from all the neighbors and, unlike others I eventually outgrew, I hung onto that costume for many years because of its detailed handiwork.

That winter, I donned a homemade royal blue fake-fur cape. A little over-the-top for junior high, as well as for mild Houston winters, but I liked it because nobody else had one like it. I felt special.

But most impressive was the swimsuit made for me when I was a freshman in high school. It was hard to find something in the stores that wouldn’t embarrass me from over-exposure, so Mom toiled over a Butterick pattern to help me out. The suit was bright yellow with cartoon-type flowers and bees on it; it looked like happiness. But the straps, which could be worn four different ways, would have driven me to the brink of insanity had I ever attempted such a ridiculously difficult project. Mom sewed it beautifully, and stayed up all night to finish it for my band trip to Corpus Christi the next day. Somehow she survived making the suit and living with me as a teenager, simultaneously.

Throughout many changes in Houston seasons, as well as seasons of my life, I had the joy of wearing clothes made by my personal designers. Two women who loved me enough to persevere at a sewing machine, a dragon I never managed to slay.

“I impressed myself with my sewing,” Mom commented several days ago.

I was a little stunned. I had always been impressed, but she doesn’t usually give herself rave reviews for much of anything. At every family gathering, she critiques her cooking during the entire meal. She’s had the same sixteen blotches of paint on her bathroom wall for six months, trying to decide what color to paint the walls; after mixing up her own color, she decided it didn’t look good and announced, “I’ll just paint it white.” She’s a picky perfectionist when it comes to her own creations and decisions.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“I remember making a dress for you, and I wanted it to have puffed sleeves. I didn’t even have a pattern for puffed sleeves, but I made them!”

Suddenly, I was having flashbacks to my funky-sleeved blouse that died in a lonely dresser drawer.

“And one time I took a pair of your dad’s worn-out slacks and made slacks for me. I liked the color, but they were lightweight wool, so I lined them. How did I do that? I don’t know how I did those kinds of things,” she said, amazed at herself.

I don’t know the answer. I can’t even line a drawer with contact paper without its being uneven.

These days, I’m surrounded by more and more people like Mom and Grandmother – the Thread People, who are also often the Yarn People. When I was a child, quilting, knitting, crocheting, and embroidery (the non-liquid kind) were hobbies of 80-year-old women who drank tea and wore loafers with dresses. Now, people my age and younger are indulging. I once went to a quilt show in Houston to see what all the rave was about; I stood out like a woman in a fur coat at a PETA convention, and ended up with a severe case of needle envy.

My friend Betsy Ross converted her garage into a Stitching Utopia. It looks like a fabric store, only cooler, with a couch and knick-knacks. One glance made me yearn to go out and buy my first sewing machine.

“You could learn,” friends say, “it’s fun.”

But they know I’m not one of them. Even my toilet paper is not quilted.

“You’re the writer,” they add, trying to make me feel better about not joining their cult.

My career as a seamstress goes as far as sewing on buttons and repairing a bear with its stuffing hanging out. I did start a Precious Moments cross-stitch picture in 1989; I keep it tucked away in a box under my guest room bed, in case I have ever have time to finish it. Maybe I’ll get around to it. But I steer clear of sewing anything with angles and corners, which rules out anything with a shape.

So, I’ve learned to accept being an outsider. I’ll stick with what I know. And somehow, I’ll stay strong in a world full of Thread and Yarn People with their elaborate Christmas tree skirts and gorgeous knitted hats and scarves. I don’t need no stinking thread skills. I’ve got my trusty laptop and thesaurus to help me spin a yarn. And that’s enough.